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B.C. lawyers mull alternative approach to substance abuse discipline

Lawyer mental health substance abuse incidents higher than general public.
Recent studies show concerning levels of mental health and substance use issues among lawyers, including rates of depression, anxiety and problematic alcohol use, according to a report presented to the Law Society of BC board.

B.C.’s legal profession regulator’s board Sept. 24 will debate adopting an alternative discipline process for lawyers dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues.

A report to Law Society of BC board members or benchers recommends the adoption of a different process than is used in other complaint and discipline cases, many involving allegations of professional misconduct.

The goal of the suggested process, the board was told, is to individualize the regulatory response and focus on support, treatment, practice interventions and other remedial measures.

Part of it would rely on the voluntary aspect of the program for involved lawyers.

“Lawyers will only choose to participate in the process if they are satisfied that confidentiality measures are firmly in place to govern the collection and use of health and other personal information,” the report said.

The report was clear that while there isn’t necessarily a causal relationship between mental health or substance use issues and lawyer misconduct, untreated conditions could affect cognitive and other skills critical to a lawyer’s ability to properly do their job.

The report said recent studies show concerning levels of mental health and substance use issues among lawyers, including rates of depression, anxiety and problematic alcohol use that greatly exceed that of the general population.

“This emerging data indicates that these issues are widespread within the profession and can arise at any point in a lawyer’s career, affecting seasoned practitioners, mid-career lawyers and new entrants to the profession alike,” it said.

Research conducted by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford clinic in 2016 found that between one-fifth to one-third of U.S. lawyers qualified as problem drinkers, and that approximately 28% and 19%, respectively, struggled with depression and anxiety.

However, the report acknowledged lawyers are apprehensive about disclosing health conditions that could affect their ability to practice.

“Research suggests that stigma and confidentiality concerns, including not wanting others to ‘find out,’ are identified as the primary barriers to disclosure,” the report said.

The society has been working on stigma-reducing initiatives in the past few years.

The report said the core of the suggested program would be a voluntary, confidential process designed to customize the regulatory response in cases where a lawyer’s conduct issue is linked to a health condition including substance abuse.

It said adopting a process aims to support lawyers in addressing their underlying health issues, placing practitioners in a stronger position to meet their professional responsibilities. It said the process would create potential to realize significant public interest benefits by reducing the likelihood that problematic behaviour will escalate or reoccur.

The report recommended a three-year pilot project to start in 2022.